Rescued at Last
. . . . .
We sailed following off shore winds to the south. I helped at the helm and learned to adjust the rudder, which at sea, is lowered down the trunk and extends well below the keel. Learning to set the sails was quite a chore. I ran around the deck like a Keystone Cop trying to help. With lateen sails, no reefing is needed. When the wind got too brisk, as it did the second night aboard, the crew simply Jet the halyard go, and the weight of the sails and battens brought the sails down into the topping lifts.
When the wind picked up I became uneasy, but the crew didn’t seem worried. My concern was the masts and rigging. The masts were extremely heavy and built up with heavy stiffeners bound around with iron bands. The masts carried no stays whatsoever. They just stuck up in the air on their own. Why they didn’t come crashing down is a mystery. The first time we tacked, I fully expected to see the masts lift right out of the boat as the heavy yard swings across with a rattle and crash. It didn’t. Jibbing without stays was an easy procedure. The secret I figured was the even distribution of the weight all up and down the mast.
I was shocked out of my wits my first night aboard, when they started to tack to change our course. It had to do with superstition, and no one is more superstitious than Chinese sailors. Everything they do is governed by their wishes to please the gods. It is necessary that much propitiation be made to them. “Chinese paying plenty chin chin joss,” one of the crew explained to me in his Pidgin English. The date of departure is always governed by feng-shui, a curious Chinese custom which is supposed to be the influence of the wind and water spirits for good or ill. We anchored in one cove and I expected to set sail the next morning but our feng-shui wasn’t right and we had to wait another two days. But the worst time to observe feng-shui was at night. Unless you know what to expect, it can be frightening.
It was one of those black evil nights when it was impossible to see hardly more than a fathom beyond the bow. It was like sailing into a void. Chinese junkmen seem to be able to see in the dark. But this night was unusual. The crew was up to something. Suddenly the silence was broken and the skies lighted up. Flares were flying and streams of sparks from their tails fell into the sea, lighting up the surface of the water in brilliant displays of color. At this signal the crew without warning began beating gongs. The noise they made was shattering. While some of the crew beat gongs the rest of the men “came about,” tacking and changing our course. I was certain the procedure was to signal the other junks that a maneuver was taking place, but the mate explained in his pidgin that it was to frighten away the devils of the sea. We had to give them warning, he said, and not bump into them, and make them angry. The kids thought this was great fun and ran up and down the deck shouting with joy, waiting for the next time we came about.
In Tsingtao when I visited the docks I saw hundreds of rats running up and down the quay, taking cover in the godowns whenever someone approached. I was sure the junks were alive with rats. Imagine my surprise to find there were none. The reason I learned, after one tasty meal, was that the crew trapped and ate them. I remembered our first winter in Tsingtao. We had restaurants we favored, and one was near the waterfront area. We liked one dish in particular that the management always served us. It was a meat dish, very small pieces, cooked in garlic. It had a name but I forgot what it was. One evening, when it was warmer than usual, Stevenson went to open the window, which, when he did, found it faced a small courtyard. That wasn’t the only thing that it faced. On lines that stretched from one wall to the other, much like clothes lines for hanging laundry, were skins strung out on hangers and hung to dry. There were hundreds of them, and they were rat skins. The specialty of the house was rat meat. That was our last time to dine in that restaurant.
Junkmen burned endless packets of joss below deck as well as topside, and at times the smoke got so dense below deck I had to run above deck to get a breath of fresh air. The mate in his pidgin explained that every junk carried its own particular little joss idol on the poop. When the weather grew foul they moved the idols below deck. Much burning of silver joss paper representing sycee took place before them. I soon noticed when we met with bad weather, an extra supply of joss paper was burned, and when we safely anchored in that cove, the crew lit more joss and beat gongs.
After all my time in China, I still found it difficult to squat for any length of time. It was most difficult aboard “Sea Wolf’ during meal times. We all squatted around the wok, and waited in turn as our gruel was ladled out into our bowls filled with steaming rice. There were no spoons, only chopsticks, and with these we had to push the food into our mouths. Dried fish was served every second day.
I couldn’t complain. They fed me and kept me alive. After a week I was almost one of the family, which got me thinking. If a patrol boat came now, would they still tie me to a chain and toss me over board? The chain was where it always was on deck, and I thought about it every time I passed it. It wasn’t a very happy thought. I made up my mind. If it even looked like they might have thoughts about dumping me over board, I would drive over the side and take my chances with the sea.
I spent hours sitting at the bow, aside the anchor. It was a massive single fluke, wooden anchor with shanks twelve or more feet in length, weighted down with stones tied in place. As we plowed through oncoming seas, our painted eyes below on both side of the bow, “seeing the way” for us to go, my thoughts would not rest. What was Stevenson doing now? Studying to be an officer no doubt. Terry, did he and his new wife make it to Kansans City, and was he a watch repair man now? And there were the others. They were pleasant thoughts, reminiscing about them, but not so pleasant were my thoughts of Hecklinger and Sgt. Grander. Melanowski was lucky; he got out. He could have been with us. There were the others too on that patrol, and I couldn’t even remember their names. Try as I did, I couldn’t even remember their faces. Little Lew was different. His smiling face was constantly before me. What was he doing now?
And Ming-Lee, where was she now? Maybe Roger got her out of Tsingtao. Certainly, with Roger’s help the communists wouldn’t do harm to her. I pictured Roger in uniform. He didn’t have to hide it in his closet any more. Maybe he would be on one of the patrol boats, and they would sail up and I would call out to him. Wishful thinking. He might be another Judas and say he didn’t know me.
Sitting on the bow gave me time to reflect, and I imagined-no, dreamed-all sorts of things. Would Shanghai be the last stronghold? Would the Marines fight to defend the city? Our navy must be standing off shore, with her heavy guns pointed to the shore. I pictured those ships, the battle cruisers and destroyers. They called the destroyers “Tin Cans.” I even pictured one now, on the high seas, coming straight for us. Its bow rose high out of the water, and then dropped deep into a trough. I saw it rise again, and then I heard the junkmen yelling. Low and behold, this was no illusion, no dream, not a thing imagined. It was a real US Navy Destroyer followed by two destroyer escorts. The junkmen began waving, and I quickly stood up, removed my dungaree jacket and began waving it above my head.
Like us, they were running south toward Shanghai, two hundred yards off our starboard beam. I could see a deck officer on the bridge with binoculars looking at us. One minute the ships were on our beam, and the next they were leaving us behind. I waved even more frantically now. My hopes were dashed. They must not have seen me. Suddenly the destroyer began flashing signals to the other ships. The two escorts stopped. The destroyer did a sweeping turn and came back towards us. It came to within a hundred yards, and I could see sailors lowering a whaleboat from its davits. They were coming for me.
I was jubilant, elated, thrilled, but also saddened to be leaving my new friends. The children lined the deck, and each of the crew in turn shook my hand. I went over the side and stepped into the whaleboat. I waved my last good-bye to Hai Lang and her crew. The next morning we arrived in Shanghai.